Why Obama picked Panetta to run the CIA.

Why Obama picked Panetta to run the CIA.

Why Obama picked Panetta to run the CIA.

Military analysis.
Jan. 6 2009 6:54 PM

Why Obama Picked Panetta To Run the CIA

He's clean, he knows where the line items are buried, and the director isn't the chief spook anymore.

Leon Panetta. Click image to expand.
Leon Panetta 

The puzzler of the hour: Why is Barack Obama picking Leon Panetta, a former congressman and White House official with no intelligence experience, to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency?

Nothing definitive can be said here—the Obama transition team is a tight-lipped shop (the leak probably came from elsewhere)—but some inferences can be drawn.


First, Panetta was almost certainly not among the president-elect's initial list of prospects. As was widely reported, John Brennan, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, seemed pegged for the job—he'd been candidate Obama's intelligence adviser for nearly a year—until he was linked a bit too closely to President George W. Bush's enhanced-interrogation program and so "withdrew" from the running.

This has been Obama's persistent dilemma on the matter of picking a CIA chief (and the reason it has taken him so long to do so): finding someone who is a) up on the issues and the workings of the intelligence bureaucracy but b) not tainted by the Bush administration's record of renditions, torture, or extralegal surveillance.

Panetta's pick suggests that no such person exists—and that, if forced to make priorities, Obama values b) over a). Panetta has written articles denouncing the use of torture under any circumstances. In that respect, he is clean.

It is worth emphasizing, however, that Panetta is not as green to the spook world as some of his appointment's critics have maintained. In the 1990s, as President Bill Clinton's budget director and White House chief of staff, he was not just passively exposed to intelligence issues.

Richard Clarke, who was the White House counterterrorism director under Clinton (and, briefly, under Bush before resigning and then emerging as a celebrated critic), wrote in an e-mail today:

Leon was in all of the important national security meetings for years, both as [Office of Management and Budget] director and as chief of staff. He made substantive contributions well outside of his job description. And as OMB director, he was one of a very few people who knew about all of the covert and special-access programs.

Clarke's first point is crucial—Panetta knows, from experience, what a president wants and needs from intelligence reports, so he could represent the agency's views more cogently than many insiders might.

But the final point is important, too.  These "special-access programs"—satellites, sensors, and other intelligence-gathering devices whose very existence is known only to those with compartmentalized security clearances—form a welter of costly, overlapping, ill-coordinated, and largely unsupervised projects that are run by private contractors to a greater extent than most people might imagine.

One former CIA official who is familiar with these programs (and who asked not to be identified) speculates that Panetta's main task might be to clean up not only the agency's high-profile mess—the "black ops" that have tarnished America's reputation around the world—but this budgetary-bureaucratic mess as well. Certainly, he knows where the line items are buried to a degree that few insiders can match.

There is a danger here. Any agency veteran can recite, with glee and malice, the list of wide-eyed directors who have stormed the corridors of Langley, determined to clean house—only to see their reforms resisted from the start or overturned the moment they depart.